Tracks tells the inspirational true story of Robyn Davidson's 1700-kilometre solo trek through the remote Australian desert to the Indian Ocean.PT1M59S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2yl84 620 349 December 2, 2013
Why would you do that? That was all anyone seems to have wanted to know when Robyn Davidson was planning her 1700-kilometre trek with camels across the Australian desert in 1977.
I was ... trying to make myself up out of bits of spit and string.
Tracks, the bestselling book she wrote about her journey soon afterwards, did not quite answer the question. Now, nearly 40 years later, it is still hanging in the air around Uluru, where Davidson's book is finally being turned into a film. Why would anyone walk for nine months in this heat, which meets you like a burning wall the instant you step off the plane?
Shifting sands: Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson in Tracks.
Mia Wasikowska is playing Davidson. With wispy blonde hair and fake tan covering her pale Polish skin, she looks uncannily like her. She is also chary of the "why" question. "That was something I remember even at the very early stages, when they were still trying to find finance … I'd talk to John and Emile about the script," she says. John Curran, who made Praise and The Painted Veil, is the director, and Emile Sherman (The King's Speech) one of the producers. "They'd always be like, 'People don't understand why'. And it was so infuriating, because it seemed perfectly understandable to me why someone would want to simplify their life in a way and try to live presently in each moment. This hunger for solitude seemed to me some kind of yearning to hear her own voice."
The next day, Wasikowska and the crew are working on a small knoll with a view that stretches forever in all directions, with Uluru looming red in middle distance. Swing the other way and you see the Olgas. The shot is simple: Wasikowska has to saddle the camels. The heat is terrific, the flies friendly and the dust incorrigible. Everyone except Wasikowska is swathed in scarves and seems to be wearing an extra T-shirt. "At a certain point," says the unit publicist, "you get cooler the more you wear."
Everyone on set likes to say that the camels are stealing the show. The four stars - Mangan who plays Dookie, the snappy lead camel, Istan, Mena and Mindy the baby - are reclining on old sacks. One problem with camels, apparently, is that they will eat anything. "They ate a washcloth because it was green," says one of the wranglers. "He saw the scourer and thought, 'Beauty!' "
Mia Wasikowska with Rolley Mintuma.
Four weeks into the shoot, Wasikowska is clearly at one with her humped companions. Between takes, she sits in the dust with Mindy's head in her lap. "I do miss the camels," she will say a year later, when we meet at the Venice Film Festival where the film is unveiled. "They are so personable and sweet and strangely affectionate. They're like big dogs."
Davidson asked for Wasikowska to play the role. Even so, Davidson had misgivings when they first met to spend three days in the bush.
"I thought, 'Oh no, she's so tiny and frail; how is she ever going to muster the earthiness?' But we went to see the camels and she just got straight in there; she was totally fearless," she says.
Robyn Davidson and Mia Wasikowska.
Davidson was also just a slip of a thing when she took the journey. "But how you appear from outside is so different from how you see yourself,'' she says. ''I look back and see photographs of that girl and, of course, she was young, she was beautiful, she was blonde. I didn't see myself like that."
Back in the '70s, Davidson was known simply as "the camel lady", which appalled her at the time. She never imagined that there would be public interest in her personal adventure. She had successfully asked National Geographic magazine for sponsorship and promised to write an article when she finished. This meant they sent photographer Rick Smolan to intercept her every month to document the trip. Those interruptions infuriated her, but the tourists and journalists who tried to waylay her were much worse. "Suddenly I became a famous person and I found that very weird," she says. "So when a publisher asked me to write a book - because I had had no intention of writing about it - I said yes because I thought the whole world could focus on the book and I'd be left alone and I could go back to my normal life.''
How wrong she was. As a vision of the outback, Tracks seized the imagination, first of suburban Australia, then the world. Davidson became an instant heroine at a time when second-wave feminism talked a great deal about role models. "I think it just hit some sort of combination for mythical qualities," she says. "We've got Ulysses but we haven't got the female version. So I think it was some combination of those factors with the zeitgeist of the time. It just hit some nerve and continues to do so."
Adam Driver as Rick Smolan.
Curran is a decade younger than Davidson. When he was 25, he left his job as a graphic artist in New York where he had grown up and came to Australia with vague thoughts of seeing if he could be a filmmaker and a slightly more well-developed idea of having an adventure. "I think that's how I came to relate to this thing," he says. "I think any of us knows that if you decide to take a trip, where you end up is always different from where you start. Otherwise why would you do it, you know? But I don't think, until you do it, you're really conscious of what that's going to be."
Curran chose to shoot Tracks on film, not digital, using lenses that were popular in the '70s. He set out to make an epic with both the grandeur and intimacy of Walkabout, in which the landscape would be a dominant character. The story, however, is a series of encounters between strangers, of whom the most memorable is the indigenous elder, Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma), who guides Davidson through sacred land.
The real Mr Eddy was almost silent except when he sang his relationship to the land and its plants - "like singing to a loved one", says Davidson - but Mintuma was a natural chatterbox, telling endless stories that are clearly very funny if you can understand Pitjatjanjara. "Even though I didn't know what he was saying, I was always laughing so we used that," Curran says. "You got the sense of someone who was very happy in the moment."
Given the book's success, it seems bizarre it has taken so long to bring Tracks to the screen. In fact, there have been several attempts; Disney held the rights at the point when producers Sherman and Iain Canning first sought them out.
''The previous history of the film was long and kind of sordid," Davidson says. "You think you have control, but ultimately you don't, really." Scripts were sent to her that had her swimming glamorously under waterfalls or falling in love with Smolan.
"They did fool around, but it wasn't a magical romance," Curran says. He decided to stick with the truth: some comradely sex, followed by dawn, camel saddling and another day's trek. "If anything, you've seen the beginning of a good friendship. That was enough for me, something very small."
Smolan has just arrived at Uluru from New York, jet-lagged but happy, to see how his character is shaping up in the hands of Girls star Adam Driver. Like Wasikowska, Driver seems to have become physically indistinguishable from the man he is playing. Like Smolan, Driver is dipping in and out of Davidson's story, flying back to New York between his scenes. "It's nice to go from New York to Australia," he says. "The reverse isn't as pleasant because you get used to being totally isolated. When you start inching your way back to civilisation, it's a little bit overwhelming - even in Adelaide airport. All those people, going to Sydney!"
The real Smolan's memories of his monthly encounters with the feisty camel lady conjure the conflicts and confusions of an entire era. Why were women so angry? The way he tells it, Davidson called him on everything. Photographing indigenous Australians for Time magazine made him a parasite. Doing jobs for the money made him a prostitute. She made him read all of Doris Lessing. "This trip was my education," he says. "I was 27 and she was 26, but I was like 19 emotionally.
"Every time I met her she would insult me, in my view. I'd never met anyone like that before or since; she's one of a kind. There's no subterfuge or subtlety; I didn't agree with her a lot of times but it was just interesting not to have to guess what the other person was thinking." Davidson even hated the pictures he took of her trip; she thought he made her look like a model. "I'm not in a fashion show; that is not what I'm doing," she railed at him. OK, what are you doing, he would ask. ''She said, 'It's none of your business.' She would never answer that question."
She still can't. The reason why is like a Rubik's Cube, always a few twists short of a solution. She craved escape; she had something to prove; she was young and uncompromising and driven to extremes. "My sense of myself is that I was a rather unformed kind of person trying to make myself up out of bits of spit and string. Some instinct - and I think it was a correct one - led me to do something difficult enough to give my life meaning," she says. Why she had to prove herself is unclear; perhaps it had something to do with her mother killing herself when Davidson was only 11, but there is no way of knowing. "The thing I'd say about the journey is that mostly it was joyous," she says. "In a way, when you get into the psychological too much, it's almost like it robs the journey of the pleasure it gave. Fun is important!"
She could never have guessed how the story would stay with her. Five years after she reached the coast, she went to visit Mr Eddy. ''It was then I found out - I guess men are men anywhere - he'd told his community that, you know, there was something a little bit more than friendship between him and the camel lady," she chuckles. "He had put me into a skin category that made me his wife. It ended up OK with both of us understanding that nothing of a sexual nature was going to be asked of me but we had to sort of save face. So we sat on the swag from six in the morning till night-time with everyone coming along and saying hello."
Her camels, too, remained part of her life. She found a home for them with a family on the West Australian coast, then had to move them to Alice Springs. A decade after her journey had finished, she went to visit them. She had to walk more than 15 kilometres from the homestead to find where they were grazing. "I'd brought them watermelon and liquorice and all the things they liked," she says. "And without a noseline or a rope or anything they remembered all the commands. So I spent an hour with them, cuddling them and so on and then, very tearfully, I had to walk the 10 miles back. And they fell in line behind me and followed me all the way." She gives a sigh that turns into a sort of groan. "They really are extraordinary."
Tracks opens on Thursday.
ANOTHER THING …
There have been several false starts on Tracks' journey to the screen. In earlier versions, actresses proposed for the lead role included Australians Judy Davis and Nicole Kidman, as well as Julia Roberts.